One of the things that makes this country so unique is the size of the shallow water shelf the islands sit on. So many other islands nearby have very small shelfs with the sea falling off the shelf into the abyss very close to shore. Here we have miles and miles of waters that are under 300 feet deep. In fact if you draw a line between Antigua and Barbuda at the closest points the sea between them never gets deeper than 90 feet.
With all of this shallow water there is the potential for an incredibly healthy and diverse shallow water marine ecosystem. The Queen Conch thrive in these shallows and for thousands of years they have been harvested all around our coasts. The earliest people who are known as the Siboney lived here over four thousand years ago and conch was a staple of their diets. The same is true with the Arawak people that lived here long before the first Europeans arrived. All of the archaeological sites here have piles of discarded conch around them. The indigenous people also fashioned beautiful tools and jewels from the shells. One can only imagine how many conch “walked” the shallows back in those days. The Siboney and Arawak people are now extinct but the conch are still living in the shallow waters around Antigua and Barbuda.
These days with uncontrolled fishing and a vastly increased demand locally and from abroad, the queen conch numbers are nothing like they were only twenty years ago. The days of men paddling out in daggalogs (rafts made from the century plant stalks) and collecting enough conch close to shore to practically sink the raft are over. Fishermen are finding it more and more difficult to make a living. With the economy in dire straights and food costs rising to unaffordable levels there are more conch fishermen and bigger overall catches. The shallow waters have been cleared of conch and scuba diving is the only profitable way to harvest conch. Divers are going deeper and deeper into the conch grounds and with the lure of bigger profits and deeper depths this type of fishing has become extremely dangerous. The reason that it’s so dangerous is that scuba diving is very different from free diving with just a mask and snorkel. Breathing compressed air at depths usually allows for microscopic bubbles of nitrogen and other gasses to be absorbed into a divers bloodstream. If not carefully controlled these gasses expand (as all air does when it rises) in the blood causing a variety of life threatening problems to the diver back at the surface. These problems are commonly called “the bends” or Decompression Sickness and sadly it can sometimes be fatal. Way too often we hear of divers here getting paralyzed because of the bends.
I’m not sure if there are any reliable statistics which tell how many conch divers get decompression sickness, but there is no doubt in my mind that conch fishing is the most dangerous type of fishing done in Antigua at the moment. The maddening thing is that it doesn’t have to be. Scuba diving when done properly is quite safe and thousands of tourists a year scuba dive here each year without any problems. They must all be certified scuba divers or trained to dive in shallow waters with the dive operation. Unfortunately most of the conch divers have no such certificates and many have had no formal training. The dangers of diving over the internationally recognized time limits at any given depth are often ignored and sometimes are not even known. There is no doubt that the men who dive every day commercially are brave, but many of them permit their ego and often times their greed to cloud the warnings they have heard from older more experienced divers. You see once you dive deeper than 30 feet you will only be able to spend less time on the bottom as you go deeper and deeper. At 30 feet you can spend well over an hour there looking around. At 60 feet you only can only spend about 50 minutes there safely. At 130 feet where many conch divers go you have only a few minutes. Many divers go considerable deeper playing Russian roulette with their lives. That is all dangerous in itself but conch divers often do something even more dangerous by doing consecutive dives. You see someone who has training knows that before you can dive again you have to wait for specified periods of time in between each dive. It all depends on how deep your first dive was. Of course there are other complex variables which I learned all those years ago when I became a certified diver. Without knowing the “dive tables” which describe your safe diving limits you can not dive safely, and the reality is that way too many divers are out there each day who have no real knowledge of all of this. Yesterday, I received a call from a very nice and very worried young lady who wanted me to take her brother to Guadeloupe to the special decompression chamber. He had lost the proper use of his legs the day before after some deep dives. It was late and with customs and immigration closing soon, i made some calls. I was worried about the long trip to Guadeloupe too with this man who was obviously in pain and needing oxygen. Divers with decompression sickness can’t fly commercially because they have to be kept in low pressure environments. Caribbean Helicopters were unavailable, but I called JHR Caribbean who said they would be able to take him. They didn’t hesitate and later i found out that just two weeks ago they took another young man suffering from decompression sickness. The international air ambulance company had quoted his family US $25,000. Clearly it’s time for a closer look at conch fishing. Too many have been hurt and many more will suffer. I know that if there was a strictly enforced season as there is in many other areas, the conch would be able to flourish and possibly be farmed once again in shallow waters. Whatever the answer is, I hope that it’s a long time before we hear of another diver with the bends.